Hosted by Awkwafina, Gala Will Feature Jodie Foster, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Wole Soyinka, and More in Presentations to Honorees Including Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Robert A. Iger

“The freedom of expression is a threshold and gateway to all freedoms, and if it is closed, all doors will be closed to freedom.”—Reza Khandan Mahabadi, in translation from Farsi 

(New York, NY) — PEN America today announces three imprisoned Iranian writers and free expression advocates—celebrated poet, screenwriter, and filmmaker Baktash Abtin; novelist and journalist Keyvan Bajan; and author, literary critic, and popular culture researcher Reza Khandan Mahabadi—as recipients of the 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. All centrally involved in the historic and vital—yet frequently imperiled—anti-censorship group Iranian Writers Association (IWA), the honorees are serving a collective 15.5 years in prison following a crackdown on members of the organization. Their detention stems both from their public profiles as writers and creatives, as well as their work and advocacy against the state’s encroachments on free expression. They will be honored at 2021’s PEN America Literary Gala, which returns this year as an in-person event, October 5 at the American Museum of Natural History

In April and May 2015, security forces raided Abtin, Bajan, and Khandan Mahabadi’s homes, seizing their written works and materials, and questioning each of them about their work and the work of the IWA. After a lull in investigations, the writers were summoned again and briefly detained in January 2019; in April and May 2019, a court heard the joint case, and they were each convicted of “colluding against national security” and “spreading propaganda.”

Abtin, Bajan, and Khandan Mahabadi’s imprisonments have had grave effects on their health, underscoring an acute need to rally around their releases and continue calls to free unjustly jailed political prisoners around the world. All three were summoned to begin their sentences at Iran’s notoriously brutal Evin Prison in September 2020, amid the raging pandemic and despite COVID-19’s severe impact in Iranian prisons. (Evin Prison has captured global attention in recent weeks as the Iranian government launched an investigation following released footage exposing horrific conditions and abuses by its guards.) 

Abtin and Khandan Mahabadi contracted COVID-19 after five months at Evin, which, for Abtin, developed into pneumonia. When Abtin was taken to a hospital ward briefly for treatment, authorities forcibly transferred him back to his prison quarters while he still showed symptoms, putting his cellmates at risk of contracting the virus. The writers have likewise been refused proper hospital treatment for other ailments. Such callousness has become routine in Iran’s prison system amidst the pandemic.

The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award is a powerful tool in PEN America’s year-round efforts to end the persecution of writers and defend free expression, serving as a springboard for PEN’s multifaceted advocacy for the writers it honors. Of the 48 jailed writers who have received the award since 1987, 44 have been released due in part to the global attention and pressure the award generates. In February 2021, two 2019 recipients of the award, Saudi writers and women’s rights advocates Nouf Abdulaziz and Loujain Al-Hathloul, were conditionally released from custody though continue to face serious restrictions on their ability to travel, work, and speak freely.  (Eman Al-Nafjan, also awarded in 2019, was released conditionally in 2019, but likewise lives with these constraints on her true freedom.) The most recent honoree from Iran, Nasrin Sotoudeh, is currently also serving a politically-motivated sentence, and PEN America remains committed to ensuring her unconditional release.

PEN America Chief Executive Officer Suzanne Nossel said, “Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi are embodiments of the spirit that animates our work at PEN America. They are writers who are called not only to offer prose and ideas on a page, but to live fearlessly—and sacrifice immensely in service of the liberties that underpin free thought, art, culture, and creativity. By taking up the mantle of leadership within Iran’s literary community, they have served as beacons for countless authors and thinkers whose ability to imagine, push boundaries, and challenge repression under the most dangerous conditions is fed by the knowledge that they do not stand alone. The Iranian government’s targeting of these three lions of Iran’s writing community, men whose only weapon is their intellect, marks the moral bankruptcy of a regime that is so afraid for its own survival that it has resorted to a futile effort to stamp out independent thought.”

The annual PEN America Literary Gala, hosted this year by Golden Globe Award-winning actor, writer, and producer Awkwafina, is a highlight of the New York literary and social calendars, with an exceptional group of leading writers who sit among them as Literary Hosts. 

As previously announced, Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder Henry Louis Gates Jr. will receive the 2021 PEN/Audible Literary Service Award, previously given to titans including Stephen King, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, Patti Smith, and more. Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University, has authored or co-authored more than 20 books and created more than 20 documentary films, including The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, Black in Latin America, Black America since MLK: And Still I Rise, Africa’s Great Civilizations, Reconstruction: America after the Civil War, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This is Our Song, and Finding Your Roots, his groundbreaking genealogy series now in its seventh season on PBS. The recipient of 58 honorary degrees, Gates was a member of the first class awarded “genius grants” by the MacArthur Foundation in 1981, and in 1998 he became the first African American scholar to be awarded the National Humanities Medal. Academy and Golden Globe Award-winning actor and director Jodie Foster and playwright, political activist, and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka will present Gates with the award. 

Pulitzer Prize, Tony, Grammy, and Emmy Award-winning songwriter, actor, and director Lin-Manuel Miranda will be on hand to salute Corporate Honoree Robert A. Iger, Executive Chairman of The Walt Disney Company and Chairman of the Board of Directors. Over his 15 years leading the Company—expanding on Disney’s rich history of unforgettable storytelling with the acquisitions of Pixar (2006), Marvel (2009), Lucasfilm (2012), and 21st Century Fox (2019)—The Walt Disney Company has been recognized as one of the “Most Reputable Companies” in both America and the world by Forbes magazine (2006-2019); one of the “Best Employers” in both America and the world by Forbes magazine (2019 and 2018, respectively); one of the “World’s Most Admired Companies” by Fortune magazine (2009-2020); and as one of the “World’s Most Respected Companies” by Barron’s (2009-2017).

In December of 2020, PEN America held a virtual gala with more than 18,000 supporters watching an illustrious lineup of honorees and special guests, including President Barack Obama. Returning as a celebration held under the American Museum of Natural History’s iconic blue whale, the event will begin with a VIP reception at 6pm, followed by a cocktail reception at 6:30pm, and dinner and awards at 7:30pm. The proceeds from this event are crucial to PEN America’s dynamic cultural programming and critical advocacy work on behalf of free expression.

COVID Safety Protocol and Requirements 

PEN America is working closely with the American Museum of Natural History to ensure a safe, inspiring 2021 Literary Gala. Attendees will be required to show proof of vaccination as well as documentation of a negative COVID test administered no more than 72 hours prior to the event. Guests must wear masks when not actively eating or drinking.

About the Writers

Baktash Abtin (or Bektash Abtin, Farsi: بکتاش آبتین) is a celebrated Iranian poet, screenwriter, filmmaker, and board member of the Iranian Writers Association (IWA). Born in 1974, Baktash Abtin began writing poetry after he graduated from high school. Since the late 1990s, he has published five books of poetry. Abtin’s early interest in poetry and literature translated into cinema later in his career. He first ventured into filmmaking after writing a script and acting in a television movie. In 2005, he made his first documentary The Solar Eclipse and has since made more than ten films, primarily documentaries, in which he has played various writing, editing, and directing roles. Abtin has received awards for his poetry and films. His documentary film Mory Wants a Wife (2013) has been featured at international film festivals such as IFFR and DMZ International Documentary Film Festival. Over the last six years, despite their global acclaim, Abtin’s books have been banned from bookstores and his films have been banned from screens in Iran.

Reza Khandan Mahabadi (Farsi: رضا خندان مهابادی) is an author, literary critic of fiction writing, popular culture researcher, and a board member of the Iranian Writers Association. Born in 1960, Khandan Mahabadi started his studies of fiction writing children’s literature in 1978, when he published a collection of children’s stories. A prolific writer and student of fiction literature, Khandan Mahabadi has said that he has “always been caught up with censorship, exclusion and elimination” throughout his career. In the late ‘80s and in collaboration with his colleague, Khandan Mahabadi started writing a 19-volume collection of writing entitled Encyclopaedia of Fictions of People in Iran. He later wrote My Beloved Stories, another multi-volume book of selected short stories from Iran written in the past 80 years. Khandan Mahabadi has himself written a collection of short fiction entitled The Solitaries.

Keyvan Bajan (or Keyvan Bazhan, Farsi: کیوان باژن) is a novelist, journalist, and former board member of the Iranian Writers Association who had recently finished his trustee term at the time of his imprisonment. Bajan was born in 1972 and studied Dramatic Arts and Theater at university. He is known as a novelist and author of several books, including works about Iran’s oral history. Bajan also wrote Together with Ahmad Mahmoud, a collection of notes, interviews, and critiques about the prominent Iranian novelist. Bajan has worked with the literary and cultural magazine Adineh—described by some as a New Yorker equivalent—and KELK, a prominent monthly cultural magazine on Iranian studies. Bajan has also written for newspapers, weeklies, and other publications including Sahrgh and Hamshahri.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. Headquartered in New York City with offices in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., the organization counts 7,500 Members in all 50 states, as well as seven volunteer-led regional chapters. Throughout the pandemic, PEN America has remained committed to the principles of free expression, continuing its path-breaking advocacy while also celebrating literary excellence. In the past year, the organization has launched new marquee research projects; kept the pressure on policymakers in Washington to defend free expression; demanded free speech protections on campuses; led the fight to protect protest rights; and has uplifted emerging, historically-underrepresented voices in its work celebrating writers.

Press Contacts

For more information, please contact Blake Zidell or Adriana Leshko at Blake Zidell & Associates, 917.572.2493, [email protected] or [email protected]

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